In a recent interview, with Canada Reads, Adrienne Clarkson was asked to name the novel that could change Canada. Her choice was The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden.
“Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda has taken the story of how Canada came to be and turned it on its head, transforming our collective memory.”
This singular quote sums up my feelings exactly. Already an admirer of Joseph Boyden’s earlier works, he delighted me once again with a story that was harrowing, moving and enlightening.
Should every Canadian read The Orenda? In a word — yes!
We all enjoy a story that takes us somewhere new.
The Orenda will take you to a new place, beyond the euro-centric teachings that many of us recall from outdated Canadian history textbooks.
Joseph Boyden shares the rhythm of life in the Huron village: the hierarchy of relationships, the rituals and spirituality, the day to day happenings, and nature’s fluctuations between harshness and generosity. He shows us the challenge of managing trade relations between native groups and the French. We glimpse the shifting powers and changing centres of influence that follow on the heels of each calamity.
He tells the story of uncertainty faced by the Huron people in a way that makes us feel the real impact when their perfectly held balance is made unstable by a succession of epidemics and subsequent famine, the strain of eminent warfare, and proselytizing of Jesuit missionaries.
Readers will experience literary osmosis — research is artfully woven into the story.
We read to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The Orenda will allow you to walk in three different sets of shoes. The story is told through three separate first person narratives: Bird, a Huron (Wendat) elder; Snowfalls, an abducted Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) girl; Christophe, a Jesuit missionary. Events are seen through the eyes of these three unique perspectives. The belief systems and motivations internalized by each narrator are scrutinized and often misunderstood by the other two. The evolution of relationships surprise the characters and satisfy the reader in turn.
The more we are different, the more we are the same. Despite the differences of place and time, we share some common worries, experiences and needs with Bird, Snowfall and Christophe. We worry about loved ones and we grief their passing. When there are no easy answers, our minds often turn to revenge. We feel powerless to change some things and often create a larger problem when we try to. When we become inflexible in our opinions, our view narrows its focus and we overlook alternate courses of action. Fear manifests itself when we face uncertainty.
The Orenda promises rich book club conversation.
The potential talking points are bountiful. Compare and contrast Huron and Jesuit attitudes and beliefs. Explain how the Christophe’s conversion strategies change as the story progresses. Explore the significance of the Raven as a symbol throughout the narrative. Which characters view their decisions as altruistic? Do you agree with them?
I thought I was well informed, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know — until I researched further.
Readers can dig deeper into Canada’s past.
I urge you to read Jacki Andre’s “Contagious Disease and Huron Women—1630 -1650”, a work that connects directly to experience of the female characters in The Orenda. She details the declining power of the Huron women to influence social, economic and political issues in their communities post Samuel de Champlain.
Readers will gain a deeper understanding of the domino effect of historical events and their devastating impact on the Huron people. Cultural practices and spiritual beliefs of the Huron people were deeply affected by: a succession of epidemics and famine; agricultural misfortunes; conflict with the Five Nations over resources and trade; and the dogged conversion efforts of the Jesuit missionaries.
Jacki Andre’s work also explains the Huron mythology involving Aataentsic, the mother of all people.
It is always exciting to gain some insight into the author and their work.
What is Boyden’s personal connection to the Jesuits? Does he have first hand knowledge of the Sweet Water Sea? What is his experience of the physical setting of the story? Why does the name “Gosling” have sentimental value? Who does Joseph Boyden turn to for mentorship?
You can satiate your curiosity for all things Boyden by checking out online interviews. Here are a few to get you started:
Have you found links to book club chat questions about The Orenda? I’d love to hear from you.